After a successful last season with winning the domestic title and cup, as well as reaching the semi-final of the Champions League, Ajax started their Eredivisie 2019/2020 season with a tough away game at Vitesse. They have been struggling there for years and this edition was nothing different, as this tactical analysis will show.
In this analysis supported by statistics and tactics, we will have a look at three tactical trends during this Eredivisie game. We will look at how Vitesse set up defensively, the attacking style by Ajax and Ajax struggling with Vitesse’s counter-attack, in this tactical analysis piece.
Vitesse coach Leonid Slutsky fielded a 4-4-1-1 formation in his first home game of this season. Tim Matavz was the sole striker with Bryan Linssen playing close behind him. The little playmaker has been vital in Vitesse’s attacking style of play last season. Slutsky hoped to frustrate Ajax with their four-man midfield in front of the four-man defence.
Ajax’s coach Erik ten Hag came for one thing and one thing only; dominating and winning. He employed a 4-3-3 formation with Per Schuurs and Lisandro Martínez as centre backs. Daley Blind played as the deep-lying midfielder, whole Donny van de Beek, Razvan Marin, Dusan Tadic, Hakim Ziyech and Kasper Dolberg were all tasked with attacking.
Ajax’s attacking style of play
Ajax played fresh, attacking football in the last season and they intend to do that in this season as well. We could definitely see that in the numbers during the game against Vitesse. Ajax had 67% possession of the ball and had a pass accuracy of 84,43% (481/546 passes). The club from Amsterdam produced 25 shots from 58 positional attacks, which also can be illustrated in the image below.
Most attacks were conducted through the middle, but the biggest threat came from the left side. The image above tells us that the biggest xG threat came over the left flank with 1,07 from the total of 3,11 coming from that side.
Ajax started their attacks from the back or from regaining possession of the ball on the midfield. In this particular example, Blind captures the ball in a crowded right flank and sees Ziyech unmarked on the left side of the pitch. Ajax tended to focus their build-up on one flank of the pitch, drawing the defending players of Vitesse to that side. Because Ajax kept the playing field wide, there was plenty of space on the other side of the pitch. This is illustrated in the image below, where Blind passes the ball to Ziyech, who has a lot of space on that side.
Ziyech receives the pass and has space to make an action or look for possibilities to give a through ball. Ziyech is regarded as a very dangerous winger and when he is on the ball he draws three defending players to him. This enables Ajax players on the right to have more freedom and make their way into the box. Blind, Tadić, Dolberg and Van de Beek all are options for the winger to pass or cross the ball to.
Instead of the attacking players coming to Ziyech, they stay in the box. Marin and Blind do make the move forward towards Ziyech, which give the Vitesse defenders a dilemma. Do they mark Dolberg, Van de Beek and Tadic or do they go and put pressure on Marin and Blind? This inability to choose gave Ajax the advantage when attacking in this type of fashion.
Ziyech chooses to pass the ball short to the upcoming Marin, but his pass is not accurate. It falls between Marin and Blind, the opportunity seems a bit wasted with this kind of pass, but this is not the case.
Bazoer chooses to move towards the ball but does not know which of the players is getting the ball. Marin moves towards the ball which sets Bazoer off and Blind takes advantage of the situation and fires a shot on goal. Ajax got that freedom because of the double marking of Ziyech by Vitesse. The attempt is heading for the top corner, but Pasveer saves amazingly.
Another example of Ajax’s style of play is how they turn an interception into a goalscoring opportunity. Vitesse had a direct passing style of play, which meant that they wanted to reach the final third with as few passes as possible. Not only did they pass like that, but they move their whole formation forward to be in a more attacking mode. This kind of passing style has a higher risk and the pass to Matavz was exactly that.
This pass from Vitesse was intercepted by Martinez and he passed to Tagliafico, who started the attack again. By intercepting the ball high on their own half, Ajax could immediately be a threat to the Vitesse defence.
Because Vitesse had a counterattack, Ajax’s defenders stood high up the pitch. This meant that when they recaptured the ball, they were in the advantage when going forward. This can be seen in the continuation of the attack by full-back Tagliafico. The left-back had two options going forward. He could make a run down the line, but this gave Vitesse the time to regroup. The second option he had and in this example took, was to pass the ball to Ziyech.
Ziyech seemed unfortunate against Vitesse, but his footballing intelligence made him recognise the attacking situation, and when to drop down and when not. He dropped down to receive the pass by Tagliafico and escape the marking by Vitesse. At the moment he receives the ball Van de Beek and Marin switch and focuses on their forward movement. At the exact time, he draws the defender from his position to open space for the attacking players to move higher on the pitch, with having a free man.
In the image below you can see that Blind has the ball and Tadic is the unmarked man. He is in the position to pass the ball back to Blind, and then make his way forward – making it hard to defend for the Vitesse defenders.
Directly after receiving the ball from Tadić, Blind looks for new options, while Tadić, Van de Beek, Marin and Dolberg make a run into the box. Blind decides to pass the ball to Ziyech, who now chooses to cross the ball into the box. The pace with what this passing is done is what made it hard for the Vitesse defending payers to get a grip on the Ajax players when they moved forward.
When you look at the image below, you can see how the Vitesse players struggle with marking the players with Ajax’s pace of attacking style of play.
Ajax has five players going into the box when Ziyech crosses with Blind moving forwards as well. The cross provided by Ziyech is too hard and there is no immediate threat, but this style of play characterises the way they created chances in this away game in the Eredivisie. It’s not only the attacking style of play that disrupted the Vitesse defence, but vital is the pace that wasused to do that.
Vitesse defensive set up
With Vitesse expecting for Ajax to dominate and play attacking football, Vitesse needed to be organised defensively. The 4-4-1-1 formation Slutsky used, was designed to defend with many players. In the image below you can see the defensive set up of Vitesse when Ajax was building up from the back.
In their defensive set up when Ajax is starting their attacking style of play. Max Clark, Armando Obispo, Danilho Doehi and Vyacheslav Karavaev form the four-man defence. Their four-man defence moved liked a block and had ball orientated zonal marking. The defence moved as a bloc to the zone where the ball was and tried to press in that particular area. This was very effective at times, but Ajax is a technically gifted team and with a high paced passing style of play, they could utilise the open space on the other side of the pitch.
Thulani Serero and Richedly Bazoer were the midfielders tasked to assist the defence when Ajax was attacking. Their first objective was to neutralise the attacking threat by Van de Beek and Marin, who would make runs forward in order to create goalscoring opportunities.
Vitesse’s defenders were not the only one who did their defensive duties. Slutsky finds that every player has to deliver his defensive duty and this can be seen in the way they pressed Ajax in this Eredivisie game.
Vitesse played in the 4-4-1-1 formation and the first players who pressed were Matavz and Linssen. They were tasked with pressing the central defenders Martinez and Schuurs. The two central defenders were uncomfortable on the ball with this type of press. While Linssen played behind Matavz in the formation, they pressed like two strikers and that gave Ajax all kinds of troubles.
Ajax tried to build up from the back in this phase but they weren’t quick enough, which left Vitesse able to press them. Matavz pressed Martínez, which made him have difficulties passing the ball. As soon as Matavz reached Martínez, Linssen pressed Schuurs, Tannane pressed Tagliafico and Bazoer pressed Marin. Martínez felt like he had no choice than to pass it back to Onana.
This was not entirely true though. While Tannane pressed Tagliafico, Bero did not press Veltman and Ajax could play their way out of it. Because Linssen left his position to put pressure on Schuurs, Veltman was unmarked and could continue Ajax’s build-up. This is how Ajax could get out of the press, but they did not in this example.
Onana was put under pressure and had to play the ball long. When Ajax played the long ball after Vitesse pressed, the defensive line would make sure they were on the same height. They did this to neutralise the attack and to set the offside trap.
Because of Ajax attacking style of play, which we have touched upon earlier in this tactical analysis, Vitesse would need to defend with the defence and the midfield when Ajax had three of four men in the final third, eight Vitesse players were in the defensive mode. This can be seen in the image below.
Vitesse altered their defensive positioning after the first half because Ajax had numbers going forward. Their defensive line in defence and midfield made it easier to cope with the 4 or 5 attacking players of Ajax, which is also made it more difficult for Ajax to pass through the Vitesse defence.
Ajax struggle with direct counter style by Vitesse
As shown in the attacking style of play by Ajax, they tend to attack with more than five players in the opposition’s box when Ziyech crosses it from the left. Only three of his eight crosses reached a teammate. When the cross by Ziyech or other players did not reach the target, Vitesse could counter-attack.
While Ajax were dominant in this match, they struggled to deal with the aforementioned counter-attacks. Especially the direct approach of the counter-attack made it difficult for the guests. When the pass accuracy was not good, Vitesse would profit from it. Ziyech was the main focal point in attack by Ajax in the first half and his passing was vital to creating goalscoring opportunities. When his passing was off, Vitesse could be very dangerous on the break.
Ziyech’s pass was inaccurate and Vitesse could take over. Five attacking players by Ajax were left not used and they were not able to switch back to a defensive mode adequately.
The ball was headed to the sole striker Matavz who was held off by Schuurs. Schuurs however, could not dispossess him and Matavz could hold the ball like a strong target man until others closed in.
Matavz eventually passed the ball to the upcoming Bero, who made a run down the line on the left flank. The midfielder was quicker than both Schuurs and Marin, which consequently meant that it Martinez was the only to cover the final third against the upcoming Linssen and Tannane.
The cross Bero made was not very accurate, but it posed to be a threatening situation for Ajax with Matavz, Linssen and Tannane all attacking the cross. The pace by Vitesse was what Ajax struggled with in Vitesse’s counterattack.
Although Vitesse had four counter-attacks and did not score in it, they were a threat for the Ajax defence when trailing back. It exposed the inexperience from Schuurs and Martinez playing together in this Ajax team.
Ajax’s sole objective is to win the Eredivisie 2019/2020 title. Their adventure started in Arnhem at Vitesse, but that proved to be a difficult task. While Ajax were dominant and had a very attacking style of play against Vitesse, they failed to capitalise on that advantage over the hosts. Vitesse reacted strongly with being dangerous on the break and being more clinical in finishing chances. Ajax created a great number of chances, but they need to work on their defence if they do not want to concede as many goals as they have done so far.
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